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Sabres' Hodgson fighting a bum rap; Misdiagnosed injury hurt young prospect

Gary Roberts knows Cody Hodgson well. The retired 22-year veteran of the NHL has seen Hodgson try to train through a debilitating injury. Roberts has seen his young son take to Hodgson, and he watched the center respond by having daily lunches with the 4-year-old boy on Roberts' patio. Roberts has seen the drive and desire Hodgson has to be a successful hockey player.

With all Roberts has seen, he couldn't believe his ears.

While recapping the trade that made Hodgson a member of the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver General Manager Mike Gillis essentially said last week he was glad to be rid of the center.

"I spent more time on Cody's issues than every other player combined on our team the last three years," Gillis said.

Roberts was flabbergasted.

"I listened to Mike Gillis the other day," Roberts said by phone over the weekend, "and my impression was, 'Are you kidding me?'

"If anybody knew this kid, this young man, to know what he went through mentally and physically for two summers trying to find out what the heck was wrong with him -- of course they dealt with his issues more than anybody else in the organization because he was injured and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with him.

"It almost was like they thought he didn't want to work. Well, I can tell you that this kid out of all the kids that I train, he's up there in the [Steven] Stamkos group as far as commitment and determination. What I tell him, he does, so I know he's coachable and I love working with him."

Roberts, obviously, was fired up by Gillis' comments. Not surprisingly, Hodgson seems to have brushed them off.

Since joining the Sabres two months ago, the 22-year-old has repeatedly declined to look back at his time in the Canucks' organization. He doesn't want to dwell on a stint filled with a misdiagnosed back injury, questions about his commitment and attitude, disagreements regarding playing time and, possibly, a trade request.

"I talked to Cody after this came out with Gillis," Roberts said. "I know he's on vacation, and I said, 'Hey, I know you went through a lot of stress. How are you feeling about some of those comments?' He said, 'Gary, I've dealt with a lot of stuff there in the last three years, and I'm just going to take the high road.'

"For me, I'd like to be the guy that looks at Mike Gillis and says, 'You're a moron.' It doesn't really do anybody any good other than the fact that Mike Gillis looks like, as they say on TSN, a dud."

Roberts is certain Hodgson will be anything but a dud. Hodgson is preparing for his third summer training under Roberts, and the fitness guru with a Stanley Cup and Masterton Trophy on his resume says this offseason will be the best of Hodgson's life.

"I'm looking forward to this year really being an opportunity for him to really explode as far as his conditioning goes," Roberts said.

Hodgson's ability to work out is what gives Roberts his confidence. For too long, Hodgson wasn't able to do much.

The center hurt his back in the summer of 2009. The convoluted chain of events following the injury is the main reason the 10th overall pick in the 2009 draft is in Buffalo and Zack Kassian, the 13th pick in 2009, is Vancouver.

Doctors diagnosed Hodgson's injury as a bulging disc that shouldn't be much trouble. When it was, there was surprise, disappointment and mocking, including disparaging remarks from Canucks coach Alain Vigneault.

Hodgson struggled through 2009-10. He failed to make the Canucks out of training camp and played just 24 games for his junior team. When he tried to join Vancouver's minor-league team for the playoffs, doctors wouldn't clear him to play.

That summer, Hodgson went to Roberts.

"Just watching him move in the gym, I said, 'Cody, something's not right,' " Roberts said. "He wasn't getting better. He could do some things, but as soon as you loaded him at all he had issues. Fortunate enough, we found a tear in his multifidus muscle in his back, which is really your major back stabilizer muscle, and that was really where things, I think, turned around for him."

Hodgson put up 30 points in 52 minor-league games in 2010-11. He played another 20 games with Vancouver, including 12 in the playoffs.

This season, as a rookie, he took off. Hodgson had 16 goals and 33 points in 63 games with the Canucks, then had three goals and eight points in 20 games with the Sabres.

"It's a real honor to play in this league, and to play a full season is obviously something you dream of as a kid," Hodgson said. "It was a good year. I just wish I could have done more to help Buffalo get in the playoffs."

The Sabres are counting on Hodgson to help them get there next season.

"It's exciting because Cody Hodgson has been a good addition, is going to fit in very well with a group of players," Buffalo GM Darcy Regier said. "Not just the team as a whole but even a younger subset whether it's Tyler Myers, [Tyler] Ennis, [Drew] Stafford, and I think that that is a positive."

If Hodgson's growth curve mirrors that of Roberts' other well-known pupils, he will be the No. 1 center the Sabres need. Tampa Bay's Stamkos works with Roberts and has grown into a 60-goal scorer and MVP finalist. Pittsburgh's James Neal scored 40 times. Florida's Stephen Weiss has turned into a perennial 20-goal scorer. Carolina's Jeff Skinner was the 2011 Rookie of the Year.

"A lot of people think it's just pushing the weights and doing the workouts and stuff, but it's more than that," Hodgson said. "It's about vitamins. It's about taking care of yourself not just in the gym or on the ice, but away from the ice, too, getting the proper rest, nutrition, doctors, soft tissue guys, chiropractors -- take care of yourself throughout the year so you're not missing games and you're always feeling at your peak."

Said Roberts: "Last summer, we trained him the way he should be trained. That was one summer of training in three he was really able to do what he needed to do.

"He's a pretty strong kid, but it's his speed and power that we're really going to focus on this summer. Now that he's healthy I have a pretty good feeling that he will be a faster and more powerful guy in September, which will help him develop into the player that he should have been two years ago if he would have been healthy."

A second full summer of training combined with a full season getting accustomed to the Sabres has Hodgson eager to show he belongs, no matter what anyone at his previous home says.

"I think about myself as a Buffalo Sabre now," Hodgson said. "I think we have a really good team, and I think next year coming back hopefully we'll be even stronger. I'm excited to see what we can do."

So is Roberts.

"I totally respect what he's gone through," Roberts said. "I think Buffalo's got not only a great player but a really good young man who's going to be there hopefully a long time."

email: jvogl@buffnews.com